Carving a Native Kwakwaka'wakw Totem Pole with Rupert Scow
Learning Carving with Rupert Scow
KWAKWAWKA'KA STYLE CARVING
I was very excited when I learned that Rupert Scow was offering a class in West Coast Native Carving, Kwakwawka'wakw (Kwakiutl) style. Rupert is a west coast native carving teacher from the village of Gwa'yasdums on Gilford Island across from Alert bay.
The class was to be held at Roberts Creek on the Sunshine Coast in Southwestern BC. I very much wanted to take the class but didn't know if it would be too hard for me. I was afraid I would not be able to keep up with the other carvers.The course was advertised as suitable for intermediate and advanced carvers.Which I am, but we were advised to bring adzes.
I have made an adz (which is a carving tool that is sort of a cross between an axe and a gouge.) I own two adzes. But despite excellent instruction and encouragement from friends and teachers, I have never really been able to master the adz so instead I usually use a band saw, gouges, crooked and straight blades. Carvers who master the smooth slicing chop of adzing can remove a lot of wood effectively-but not me. When I try to use my adz I chop away and get sore wrists and blisters and risk chopping my own arms and legs and people around me.
When I was a child growing up in Vancouver I loved to stare up at the many totem poles in Stanley Park and at the University of British Columbia. I am ashamed to say as kids we used to climb on the poles and dare each other to put our hands in the gaping mouths. I always preferred the dramatic multi colored carvings from the northern part of Vancouver Island. In those days this Aboriginal 1st nation was mistakenly called Kwakiutl, an error made in part because the pronunciation is hard for native English speakers.
Once when I was little I saved my allowance until I had $10 and took the bus downtown to the Hudson's Bay Company department store. My aunt worked in the "Indian" souvenir department and sold me a small brightly painted pole Kwakiutl style which I treasured and still have 60 years later.
One way to differentiate the Kwakwaka'wakw carving from the equally beautiful Haida or Gitxsan Wesuwetan carvings is in the use of color. The Haida and Gitxsannations use mainly or exclusively red and black accents on natural wood. The Kwakwaka'ka often cover the carving with color: white,red and black form lines and secondary colors brown,green,yellow,orange.
Another way to differentiate is to look at the shapes.Traditionally the Haida carvings are flatter and the Kwakwaka'wakw carvings more deeply carved and rounded. Kwakwaka'wakw style has been called the baroque of West Coast carving because of the use of dramatic exaggerated shapes and bright colors.. The large masks with many moving parts manipulated by strings,must look fantastic in the longhouse dances..
In those same years,the 1950sI watches native master carvers carving gigantic poles for the University of British Columbia and the Royal Victoria museum. It seemed like magic watching the dramatic faces and animals emerging from the wood. It never occurred to me that I could learn to carve these figures.
Rupert Scow comes from a line of carversliving in the Alert Bay/GilfordIsland area of Northern Vancouver Island. His ancestors were famous for their beautifully carved totem poles and articulated masks. These masks were worn by the costumed dancers in the dance dramas of the potlatch. A potlatch is a festival of family honor where in the old days families gained status and respect based not on how much wealth they had, but on how much wealth they were able to give away.
During our five day carving course I hoped that Rupert would tell us stories about the longhouse celebrations and about the spirits and family crests depicted by the masks.
THREE DIFFERENT CULTURES CARVE FACES
Different styles of Carving
Here you see examples of three different carving styles:
This mask was carved by Rupert Scow. It is typical Kwakwaka'wakw style from Northern Vancouver Island shows bright colors, dramatic facial features, cedar bark decoration. This mask is suitable for dancing in the dim light of a longhouse ceremony.
This mask is in the style of North Western British Columbia. This moon mask is carved and photographed by Robert Barratt. It has fine lines, finely carved formline, and beautiful inlay following the style of Robert Barrat's mentor Norman Tate. Robert Barratt teaches formline carving, mask making and other wonderful courses.
I took this photo in Rotorua New Zealand. This face is from a pole at the Maori cultural center. In Maori culture each individual had his or her unique facial tattoos of curved lines. Maori masks and sculpture are often more roughly carved than this example and the older figures were often preserved with a red ochre coating. I was unable to study Maori carving as people I asked said it is traditionally not women's work to carve. I am sure someone would have taught me if I had more time to look.
Can you see the similarities and differences?
OUR TOTEM POLE CARVING COURSE with RUPERT SCOW
The carving course was organised by Joanne, Andrew Dunkerton's wife. It took place on their property in the large, bright,luxurious two level workshop built by Andrew on his property in the woods of Upper Roberts Creek. Joanne provided excellent meals. Carvers camped on Joanne and Andrews large forested property or stayed in near by B&Bs.
The only anxiety I had was would I be able to keep up with the other carvers. And I was not alone. Hugh from Edmonton confided that he had been hopelessly slow in the last course and The other carvers had to wait for him.
Hugh said: "I want to carve first nations style-But there are no first nations carving teachers in Edmonton."
Hugh was a retired surgeon and he has been practicing carving a lot lately. As the 5 day course progressed none of us could keep up with Hugh.
I was totally relieved when I learned that I would not have to adze.
"We will save at least a day of carving by drawing the pattern on the cedar with templates." Said Rupert. We chose our first growth cedar pieces and traced the front and side patterns on the wood. I didn't notice the tiny traces of worm holes in the piece of cedar I chose. BIG MISTAKE!
For insurance purposes Andrew did the power cutting for us. After we had traced the patterns onto our cedar blocks he cut out our totem pole blancs on one of his bandsaws. Already the totem design was recognizable-An eagle sitting on the shoulders of a strong bear..
Rupert Scow provides clear step by step instruction which enabled students to establish and mauntain symmetry in the totem-symetry right left and in depth of the carving. Apparently in the old days symmetry was not so valued as it is in modern times. Currently symmetry is one of the marks of an excellent carving. Some other criterion are good design, smooth balance cuts, even flowing angels. And the eyes need to be expressive but not crossed or walleyed.
After we marked the center lines and lines evenly out from the center we traced elements like the eagels wing, the bears arm and head, onto the wood using tracing paper. Rupert showed us how to use clear rulers, templates, and divider compasses to ensure symmetry as we carved the pole element by element.
It was a joy to work in such a lovely workshop. we took turns choosing music-jazz, rock, or no music just story telling. rupert told some family carving stories and told about the spirits of some masks. Karen one of the carving students has a degree in Anthropology and is very knowlegeble about West Coast Native Culture. She is also a good story teller.
Our Carving Course was Intense
The carving course started with a meet and greet wine and cheese party Sunday night in Rupert's studio. People brought friends and other carvers were welcome. It was a nice relaxing way to start the course. Monday morning we began working enthusiastically and carved hard all morning and took few breaks except to stretch and inspect each other's progress.We were happy when Joanne showed up with lunch at 12 noon. Joanne is a great cook and the food she provided was a delicious highlight of the course.
During lunch time we talked carving, admired Rupert's projects-a grouse mask and a large transformation mask that he was carving for Karen. He worked hard after our classes and had it finished by Saturday. It was also interesting to look at Andrew's masks and projects and admire his workshop which is filled with equipment, wood, antique tools and many wonderful carvings.We particularly like Andrew's carved scull rattles which are anatomically correct.
The poles take shape
At lunch hour we also looked at carving books, talked carving and admired Rupert's big transformation mask. Then it was time to go back to work. We all took turns picking music to carve by. When it was my turn I told stories and asked for stories from the carvers and Rupert.
Rupert told us the story of Kolus the bird on his great grandfathers headdress. In ceremonies the chiefs are permitted to wear headdresses with their clan crests. The ceremonies could go on for weeks with the host village feeding and housing many visitors who paddled over from villages in neighbouring areas.Kolus came down from his celestial home and married a Scow woman ancestor. Through this marriage the Scows attained high ranking in their community. Rupert carved a mask telling this story.
Rupert told us about his culture, telling us how he and his brother Leonard Scow started caving in the Workshop in their village. The boys were young and enthusiastic.Skilled carvers including Wayne Alfred, Beau Dick, and others worked in this shop and gave the boys pointers. Rupert and Leonard became so fascinated by carving that they would spend up to 20 hours at a time carving. their mother would bring them food. She also carved.
Rupert said, "We learned fast. We worked hard. Carving,it must be in our blood." Rupert has great carving ancestors. Mungo Martin is on his mother's side of the family.
We enjoyed Rupert's stories and the music and most of all the carving. We worked hard and got a lot of the totem done but were still working on the eye details and had not begun to sand and paint when suddenly the five days were up and the class was finished. Where had the time gone?
If anyone wants to attend a course in the future, or if you wish to contact contact Rupert Scow you can email Andrew and Joanne Dunkerton in Roberts Creek:
You can also look at other carvings by Rupert by browsing the galleries that come up when you Google "Rupert Scow."